Canada allots billions to battle coronavirus, restricts global travel

The suspension of Parliament, billions of dollars in extra federal spending, and recommendations against leaving the country were among extraordinary steps public and private sector organizations took Friday to try to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

The all-party decision to stop sitting in the House of Commons until April 20 came as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remained in precautionary self-isolation along with his wife, Sophie Grégoire, Trudeau, who is in quarantine with a mild case of COVID-19.

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“It is an inconvenience and somewhat frustrating,” Trudeau said from outside his home in Ottawa. “We are all social beings after all, but we have to do this because we have to protect our neighbours and our friends —especially our more vulnerable seniors and people with pre-existing conditions.”

The government, Trudeau said, was planning to restrict arriving international flights to unspecified airports to enable more stringent screening.

Later in the day, the government issued a global travel advisory, telling Canadians to avoid non-essential travel abroad.

Travel could be severely interrupted because many governments are imposing entry, exit and movement restrictions, the Foreign Affairs Department said. Canadians outside the country should consider an early return, it said.

The B.C. government issued a similar advisory on Thursday.

The union representing hundreds of WestJet flight attendants said it was expecting the layoff of more than half its members given soaring flight cancellations, according to an internal memo obtained by the Canadian Press.

Trudeau acknowledged the outbreak’s financial impact but said the government had “significant fiscal firepower” to cushion the blow “No one should have to worry about paying rent, buying groceries or additional child care because of COVID-19,” Trudeau said. “We will help Canadians financially.”

While financial markets bounced back somewhat from Thursday’s jaw-dropping plunge, the Royal Bank and CIBC warned of economic storm clouds on the horizon. Finance Minister Bill Morneau addressed the concerns by announcing a stimulus program worth $10 billion to help business weather what he called the “health crisis.” The Bank of Canada said it was cutting its key rate by 50 basis points to 0.75%.

“We have your back,” Morneau said. “We are going to do whatever it takes.”

Premier John Horgan said the B.C. and federal governments are looking to help companies and their employees who might have to stay home from work to ride out the pandemic. In B.C., that means the province’s balanced budget may take a hit, Horgan said. “I did not seek election and I did not want to form a government just to balance a budget,” he told a news conference in Victoria.

Canada has recorded almost 200 COVID-19 cases and one death in a pandemic that has swept much of the world. Experts say the disease poses little risk to most people, and one of the most effective measures is to wash your hands and maintain at least a metre distance from others.

Quebec, with 17 total confirmed cases, said it was closing schools, colleges, universities and most child-care centres for two weeks. New Brunswick also announced it is closing public schools, starting Monday, for two weeks.

Toronto’s CN Tower, a major tourist attraction, was closed to visitors as movie-theatre companies tried to reassure reluctant patrons. Cineplex, for example, said it was rolling out “enhanced cleaning protocols,” while Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre said it would limit ticket sales for the next four weeks. It asked movie-goers to keep a three-seat distance.

The House of Commons said it was cancelling all public tours until April 20 and national museums said they were shutting their doors today until further notice.

Numerous major entertainment and sports events — the Juno Awards and professional hockey among them — have cancelled. Ontario said it would close its schools for two weeks after March break. B.C. has not called for the closing of schools.

Nova Scotia, which had yet to see a COVID-19 case, said public sector workers and public school children would have to self-isolate for two weeks on returning to Canada from abroad, though it was unclear how that could be enforced. The province also advised against social gatherings larger than 150 people.

Many mosques cancelled Friday prayers, though some opted to limit the size of gatherings to under 250 people.

— With Times Colonist

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